Last year, KaDee Strickland, who plays Dr. Charlotte King on ABC’s Private Practice, found herself preparing to portray a rape victim. On the show, Dr. King was raped in her office, at her hospital–a storyline that continued throughout the season.
Researching the role, playing the victim and later hearing the overwhelming feedback from survivors has inspired Strickland to help raise awareness of sexual violence. Part of her efforts include supporting a bill that would use technology to update an antiquated system of processing rape kits. Ultimately, it would eliminate the appalling backlog of crucial DNA evidence sitting in crime labs and storage facilities across the country.
In support of the SAFER (Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry) Act, which was introduced to the House of Representatives this spring, Strickland has worked with Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) and has several visited members of Congress.
I recently talked to Strickland, who said the anecdotes she’s heard about the backlog are astonishing. “When you hear stories of dusty kits, that seems like something out of a movie,” she said, “but it is real.”
- Click here to read Monday’s Q&A with RAINN president and founder Scott Berkowitz, who explains the digital registry that would be created by the SAFER Act.
- Click here for a Q&A with wrestler and RAINN online hotline volunteer and wrestler Mick Foley.
I’ve been on the show for four years. The creator of the show, Shonda Rhimes, told me that the character was violently sexually assaulted in the workplace and then we kept the storyline throughout the season. What was important to me and to Shonda was to be as authentic as possible in this imaginary circumstance. They connected me with RAINN and I requested they connect me with two women from their speakers bureau.
I really got very clear that DNA evidence is a game-changer for people. They both carried around this fear with their attacker on the loose for over a decade. For one it was 18 years, and her attacker was apprehended (from another victim’s case). Because of the kit and the evidence, they knew it was the same guy. She said it was the first night in 18 years she had slept through the night.
When you find that DNA evidence, it will change a person’s life and impact the community. These perpetrators are repeat offenders. I can’t think of a single event that I’m aware of when a person is caught that there wasn’t repeat offending going on. They’re serial rapists. Who in the world can wipe their conscience of that, knowing that we can use technology to do a better job?
What was the public response to what happened to your character?
It was beautiful and such a call to arms for a lot of survivors. As I understand it, RAINN’s hotlines blew up. People who had never talked about [their experiences] came up to me and told me about it after seeing the show.
My character runs a hospital, and this happens in her hospital and in her office. And there was the need to cover up—and denial. We dealt with the hours that followed the attack, so you saw the rape kit performed, you saw her fiancé receive her for the first time after she was beaten to a pulp. Through the course of the season she eventually does report it. The kit was taken without her full consent.
I’m telling you girl, I’m not one to say, “Hey, you should watch my work,” but I’m so proud of this.
You were on Capitol Hill in May talking to lawmakers about the SAFER Act. What did you accomplish?
We met with several members of Congress and with staffers for Joe Biden. He’s been so amazing at getting behind issues like this. We were fortunate in that way. Everyone seemed very responsive because it’s such a human problem. There are people we spoke to on Capitol Hill who had been touched by this issue. When you look at the statistics, you’re hard pressed to not know someone.
The experience was eye-opening for me. When you sit down and talk about what is on the table, no one wants to feel unsafe. This is an issue that so many people have a hard time talking about because there’s so much shame associated with it.
Why is the SAFER Act such a big deal?
I am not a big technology queen, but in this case, the technology is so simple. You have a person go through this trauma and then the evidence kit, but you can empower them with an ID number and allow them to do the follow-up to up feel secure. Then they can make sure that their number won’t become part of this backlog that has become so infamous. It gives them a sense of getting their life back. All you have to do is say yes, we’re going to use technology better.
The other thing that’s brilliant with SAFER is that it allows the community to know and allows the media to be aware. I live in Los Angeles. There’s already a lot of pressure through the media and community, and because of all the scrutiny around it, they really started working on the backlog. They’ve eliminated a specific part of it.
The thing that’s imperative is accountability; I expect that from our government. The thing that to me is the most important is that we be clear about the transparency and how it helps the media, the community, the lawmakers and the anonymity of the survivors.
What surprised you the most about developing this role for your character and learning about the experience of these women in real life?
The thing I didn’t expect was what the rape kit process is like, because there’s the reliving of the trauma. You think of it on a physical level, and it’s awful, but on emotional level, you’re traumatized. But these women have that inherent knowing that if I don’t do this, this person can do it to someone else.
I also learned about the importance of DNA evidence—it’s imperative. When you hear stories of dusty kits, that seems like something out of a movie, but it is real. It breaks my heart. It doesn’t do anyone any good.
I’m paid to emote, I’m paid to feel, I’m paid to connect. With this, there was no way I wasn’t going to feel this. For me, there was no choice but to become really active and share as much as I can from a human standpoint. The truth is, I’m going to hear these stories for the rest of my life, because I’m now connected with this cause. Which I’m happy to do, but I’d like to hear less of them.
Photos: © ABC/ANDREW MACPHERSON